It seems appropriate that Zomes' Asa Osborne, previously of the seminal post-punk outfit Lungfish, answers questions via email in a terse, efficient clip. Osborne's playing has always been economical. Lungfish took the torch from British-punk originals the Fall, carrying their three Rs (repetition, repetition, repetition) to the next level.
"I feel all music is repetitive," Osborne writes. "Whether it be traditional [W]estern song structures, world folk musics, returning to a phrase in jazz, etc., music is intrinsically circular."
With Zomes, Osborne created an insular world full of knotty organ riffs abed a sea of drones, wrapped up in a lo-fi package and underpinned by simple drum-machine beats. The sound seemed perfectly encapsulated by Osborne's artwork for 2011's Earth Grid: White lines with lots of right angles form an idiosyncratic maze over a black backdrop.
But with Time Was, out April 16 on Thrill Jockey Records, Osborne has opened up Zomes to a new world of color. Most immediately noticeable is the addition of Swedish vocalist Hanna Olivegren. Osborne and Olivegren met in Sweden through a mutual friend in Skull Defekts, a Swedish group who has worked with fellow Lungfish alum Daniel Higgs. Osborne was in Västerås, Sweden, playing at the Perspectives Festival.
"We met outdoors before the concert," Olivegren writes. "We were listening to the artist Jan-Erik Eklund's interpretation of Anthony Braxton on the Västerås town hall [carillion]. Mutual friends were all hanging around checking that out. We started talking, Asa told me about his concert and I said I was gonna try and get free from work and come there. It was after the show that I told him about the ideas I got and it felt like we both trusted each other instantly."
Osborne then suggested that Olivegren join him in Stockholm for a concert. The show, held in an art gallery, was the first time they had ever played together, so they improvised. They carried that spirit into the studio where they recorderd Time Was. "All of the songs are somewhat improvised," Osborne writes. "We had some riffs but weren't able to work out any set things before the time in the studio. I think it was Wayne Shorter that said 'composition is improvisation slowed down.'"
Olivegren's vocals range from soft coos to spoken word to expressive shrieks. She has been involved in a wide variety of musical projects, ranging from ambient pop to jazz and soul. Her powerful, deep voice makes Zomes sound at times like an alternate reality in which, somewhere along Beach House's path to stardom, they took a left turn and got much, much weirder. Olivegren's vocals add the element of accessibility.
"I get most influenced by real life sounds and by musicians who have trust in their voice and dare to explore different possibilities," Olivegren writes. "I've also listened to a lot of improvised music and West African music, which both inspire me."
She continues, "I love the variations in our songs. Some where there are lyrics and some where I use sounds and improvisations that blend together with Asa's sound." One of the album's standout tracks, "Little Lucid Dreamer," features Olivegren speaking in Swedish over looped organ. One line translates as "we lost ourselves in the dream we thought was true." The song's exploration of the area between dreaming and consciousness feels appropriate for Zomes' hypnotic repetitions.
The other significant change that separates Time Was from earlier Zomes albums is the recording process. Previous releases have been recorded onto cassette tape, and the low fidelity feels like peering into Osborne's brain through some sort of gauzy membrane. Time Was sweeps away the cobwebs.
Asa writes, "It just made more sense to [record] in the studio. We had a limited amount of time, and we didn't want to have play as well as do the recording. We also wanted it to sound as good as possible." The band recorded with Craig Bowen at Tempo House. When I ask Osborne if he misses the low fidelity of past releases, he simply answers no. After hearing the leap forward on Time Was, it is an understandable sentiment. These new directions are also reflected by the artwork for the album, which Osborne created with Olivegren's guidance. Thin lines arc and wiggle around an unseen center like the rings of a bisected tree. Unlike Earth Grid, here there are greys, browns, and hints of orange, and it is a richer work for it.